Looking at Jeremy Hernandez’s four years and the contributions he’s made to student life at USMC
Natalia Bodnik LOGOS EDITOR
If you’ve walked through the University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) at the University of Toronto, you may have taken notice of the new renovations at Brennan Hall, the sense of community that begins to take shape, and the various opportunities that surround the growing community. It is a hub for nourishment, growth, faith, and prosperity. Within the heart of this hub, you’ll find a plethora of resources for spiritual guidance, academic advice, personal fun, and collective engagement with so many interesting people. And maybe one of the members you’ll happen to bump into is a very inspirational fourth-year student happily on fire for his Catholic faith and love of God. He’s always willing to lend a helping hand with student politics, theatre, and Catholic life. On campus, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong is the epitome of an honest, strong leader and visionary. Off campus, many call him a friend, and a great one at that.
He’s the recipient of the 2018 Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award, recognized for his leadership in conjunction with the St. Michael’s College Campus Ministry and Vice-President of Religious and Community Affairs (VP RCA) at the college’s student union. Hernandez has a vast resume with USMC. The main focuses here are his three passions: his electorate at St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) in his first year, his involvement in campus ministry and several Christian and charity initiatives, and his love for singing theatre as production manager for the St. Michael’s College Troubadours and several Kelly’s Korners.
In sitting down with Jeremy at his residence, I was curious about how he had propelled himself into his various positions at St. Mike’s. But my curiosity transcended the boundaries of work, U of T, and academics. I was curious to know how he manages to stand bravely and confidently despite the hardships and the not-so-great occurrences woven into human existence. How do we achieve great things and still be good people despite the odds against us? Jeremy goes by a philosophy and the words that I think everyone who’s ever been told “no” in their lives needs to hear: “Nothing’s impossible.” Although simple, these profound words angle this article and create more meaning in our lives than we think. These words linger in Jeremy’s own life; they permeate each new task or experience as an undertaking that employs a quality of determination coupled with abundant hope and willpower. For Jeremy, it is these qualities that set us up for great achievements and successes.
To venture into anything in life with the understanding that we can overcome all things is harder to accept than we may realize. Struggles ensue, disappointments happen, and the reality that we can simply bounce back is not the same reality for everyone. But Hernandez uses the words that are predicated on Jesus’ words when Jesus says, “For human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Jeremy provides some key wisdom in following your passions, tackling the uncertainties in life, and learning about yourself in the process.
Hernandez started his campus ministry affiliation with a call from God. He expressed that while he was in high school, he felt a call from God to start a group called Mystical Rose, which is a devotion to Mother Mary. He used this devotion as a basis for achieving a group that he calls a “public expression of the Catholic faith”, meant “to unite the active and contemplative aspects of the church.” When he entered the parameters of USMC, this desire to continue what he set out was made manifest. He ended up starting Rosa Sanctissimi in 2016, a prayer group to continue his service to the Catholic faith, as well as to establish a greater influence on Catholic life on campus. In campus ministry, Hernandez had led several volunteer trips to the Rekai Centres (long term care facilities), Romero House (refugee house), street patrol to help feed the homeless, and facilitated prayer meetings for Lectio Divina to help people deepen their faith through scripture. I attended a Lectio Divina meeting for the first time this term and realized just how much solace is found in silence and contemplation, just how strongly the Holy Spirit prompts us to reflect on scripture and share any thoughts, hopes, worries, or joys we have with the close-knit groups around us, which allows for communal solidarity and personal faithfulness.
One of Hernandez’s most notable experiences was in 2018 when he led a pro-life rosary procession around campus. The procession was not a march for life, but rather a way to open up a conversation for women to understand that life-affirming decisions for their children are important and that they should not be forced to accept that understanding, but come to understand it on their own. The procession offered a sense of hope for women. Jeremy placed a great importance on the procession being an opportunity to show that many of the things we talk about in church are not restricted to just the church, but for us to show a unity among the wider socio-political world, especially when dealing with heavy ethical issues. The event concluded at St. Basil’s Church and inspired a great deal of curiosity and awe from attendees. The open and choice-affirming nature of this event was consolidated in a song Jeremy wrote and performed. Jeremy describes the pro-life procession and the awe of attendees and reporters by concluding that the awe was the realization that “something is different here.”
Going back to early 2016 when Hernandez began Rosa Sanctissimi, he first went to SMCSU to bring his idea to fruition. He has an intrinsic passion for student politics, so he ran for VP RCA and won. He felt that he brought a genuine and honest quality to the political climate and wanted to impart goodness, which informed how he ran the student union. He expressed to me that politics can be a dirty game and he wanted to be an example as a true politician. As the Vice-President of Religious and Community Affairs, Hernandez was responsible for a range of duties which included but are not limited to collaborating with campus ministry, facilitating and planning many events like Carnival, Kelly’s Korner, the Cardinal’s dinner, the Stations of the Cross, preparing an advent wreath, and obtaining a nativity scene for Brennan Hall.
After completing his term, it is natural to want to continue on with shaping student life on campus. However, after the student union was met with serious scandal and dissolved, the union needed intense rebuilding. Feeling that he could contribute more to repaint a stained landscape, Jeremy ran for President in his third year (2017) but was met with a loss of only four votes less than his opponent. He was baffled and shocked due to a close race and explained, “The act of losing was not the result of losing but the disappointment.” He maintained a humble attitude throughout the experience, and used his disappointment to benefit others. He showed that in loss, one could still prevail and exemplify virtue. He used temporary setbacks to give back to the community and student life using a spirit of consolation. He notes, “In terms of community I have always emphasized the need for being outgoing in terms of random kindness.” It’s important to be inspirational to at least one individual. At the end of his third year, Jeremy ran for President once again, and was met with loss. Setting his sights on his second great love, Broadway and theatre, he embarked on his most enjoyable journey yet.
Hernandez was selected as production manager for the St. Michael’s College Troubadours and used his leadership qualities to oversee and facilitate the six shows that the group performed. In a nutshell, his main role was to make sure that the shows took place. This included making arrangements with Hart House, applying for the rights to produce the full-length plays, receiving a licensing contract for production, and assembling the production team. When Hernandez discussed this as his most daunting yet exciting venture, he almost thought it wouldn’t happen. He spoke about the arduous yet morally enriching tale of Beauty and the Beast and the 25th anniversary of its Broadway debut. This production was more personal for Hernandez because Disney holds a special place in his heart. Essentially, he wanted to effectively encapsulate the beauty of this play and show the meaning behind the work. Because the production is a musical, the task became more challenging. Everything seemed to be new despite his experience. He expressed profound gratitude for costume designers, set designers, stage managers, directors, and choreographers. Not to mention getting the rights and licensing for production.
Hernandez placed emphasis on the anxieties and worries behind the scenes: “So many struggles for that show; there were a number of disagreements in terms of vision for the show, being behind, lot of doubts, whether the show will turn out the way it ought to be.” In early January, he had less then six weeks to put on a spectacular show and nothing had been ready yet. No set had been created, no costumes designed, no orchestra assembled. When I asked him what he did to overcome that, he emphasized, “We can’t just panic, we have to help each other along in getting it done.” He added, “It’s determination that makes you not give up.” If it weren’t for the amazing help of the people who worked tirelessly and selflessly to accomplish what they set out to do, the production wouldn’t have generated the same level of popularity on campus.
Hernandez has quite a bit to say about how his roles in campus ministry, student politics, and theatre have changed him as a person. “Well apart from the obvious skills and experiences, it teaches me the true worth and meaning of disappointment. It allows me to be able to help others amidst disappointment as well. And not just any kind of disappointment. But the feeling that you have given so much to something you would like to achieve and it doesn’t go your way, and that is something you just have come to accept and move on from and learn. It’s also the sense that not all is lost. A sense of finding not everything you did was in vain. If you commit yourself to a particular cause and the cause did not come through, what was the point of all of that?
Life is full of disappointments for many people, and so in one person’s ability to overcome such disappointment, you may be able to become an example for someone else.”
In asking Jeremy if he feels he’s an example for someone else, he said, “I think that’s a question for others to answer.” However, there’s more modesty in that answer because it’s clear that he has made a mark on the community at U of T. When asking him what he feels people should do to leave a mark beyond their studies, he says, “If you want to maximize the efficiency on the whole notion of community, [people] need to be more outgoing in terms of personal connection and relationships.” Basically, it is not enough for you to receive your degree and leave right after, especially if you want more from your experience. Jeremy is more of an advocate for spending your time at university and getting involved in the community.
In thinking about all of the alienation people tend to feel in their lives, I asked him about the best way to strive to achieve a sense of community. “One can, I suppose it is encouraging for people to go outside of their comfort zone and experience their potential in an activity, in terms of what they can experience out of it.” We all have unique desires and gifts, and Jeremy advocates for using our gifts. “The best means to success is taking risks with the gifts that you have.” He mentions a brief story about the parable of the tenants in the gospel and says that “the moral of the lesson: you have certain gifts. Therefore, you are supposed to use them and not hide them in the ground. The idea of hope is that there is an element of risk because you’re basically going against the odds to achieve some outcome. So, you should do the same in exploring your gifts and your full potential.”
When I concluded with Hernandez, I was pleasantly surprised at how well he’s able to stick to his own advice about much of the knowledge he imparted on me. Even with graduation on the horizon, he’s more equipped to trek throughout life after everything he has experienced. He left me with words that I think are profoundly hopeful and enriching: “Know that there is great power in the will and in you.” With that said, we must proceed and be great.